Alexander Hawkins / Elaine Mitchener Quartet

A review of the last Jazz in the Round of 2016 by Rob Harford

Tuesday night The Cockpit played host to its monthly Jazz evening, JAZZ IN THE ROUND, in its intimate theatre space.

The opening act, the James Beckwith Trio, were the night’s ‘emerging artists’ showcase piece. Beckwith himself hails from the U.K. but spent time in Canada before heading homeward to study composition at Trinity Laban. The group’s second number, the amusingly titled ‘PR’, caught our attention as it built from gentle to ferocious DnB rhythms on the drums which accompanied a steady ascension of synth-pad chords on the electric keys, like a shuttle through an uncharted galaxy. Eventually the piece opened up and Beckwith’s ecstatic jangling felt like they’d arrived finally at a new constellation of stars or virgin market — all before lilting back into warm Debussy elevator music, sinking down the side of a corporate skyscraper, looking out through glass windows across a quiet Hong Kong. Lots of reflexive humor but not without sincerity and pensiveness — a great start, and a great band were looking out for.
 

Teacher at Trinity Laban and label boss at Whirlwind Recordings, Michael Janisch followed with, “as far as [he] can remember,” his first solo acoustic bass performance in years. Worth the wait indeed, Janisch’s performance was a labor of deconstruction — the kind of event only possible when you’re lifted out of comfort and forced to really think on the ‘musical object’. Paradigm Shift (2015) is Michael’s most recent record and its title is a fitting phrase to borrow: at times we followed him running frantically up and down the stairs of the neck and, at others, he sat back down into a confident spareness. Mostly Janisch let the bass sing for itself but then occasionally, after sizing each other up, he would attack it, almost like he was looking for some note buried in the wood. Even the couple of moments when the bass hit the microphone felt congruous with the performance — a reminder, altogether, of the physicality of sound.

Blurbs can be overblown, but the claim that headliners Alexander Hawkins and Elaine Mitchener are among the “most distinctive voices of their generation,” felt, by the end of the night, more than appropriate. Their eponymous quartet comprises the two of them on keys and voice, respectively, and adds Neil Charles on double bass and Steve Davis on drums. Brought together by their shared love for Jeanne Lee, Hawkins explained how he and Mitchener came together to collaborate on an interest in trying do something interesting within the arguably “orthodox form” of the piano trio. He explained, too, that he felt singers are “much sinned against,” and certainly the performance rectified this wrong. In the introductory interview, mention was also made of other possible inclusions in the set, such as one homage to the late Castro, though they didn’t get around to it in time. The bassist, Charles, apparently turned down a further night on tour with the Arkestra, with whom he’d recently played with in London.



The set we did hear in the end transported us across a patchwork quilt of song, sprechstimme, madness and calm. Like leaves falling from a shaken tree, it opened in calm, as Mitchener softly crooned the lines “you thrill me” before the piece unfolded from the middle outward. As ominous and lonely as storm diagrams on a green screen, the words “I cannot see my thoughts because they’re always f a a - a - a - a - a - c i n - n - n - n g” stretched into non-sense. At moments, each of the four of them were like chaotic mannequins undergoing solitary breakdowns. Time was flexible and the most moving moments were those in which it seemed almost like they’d all stopped listening. Only for the drums and bass to bristle in as a reminder — a steady anchor underneath Hawkins’ harrowed leaps across the keys. Cowering in glossolalia or like some sped-up, realpolitik cartoon, Mitchener was gracefully possessed — a convincing exposé of ‘body as as instrument’. There’d be moments when you weren’t entirely sure what sound was coming from where, such was the calibre of her extended techniques.


Not at all dour or overly-avant either, the quartet won laughs when we were taken through a “list of things that take 3+ months to get rid of.” From “shoes that don’t fit, old towels” and “knick knacks,” to “toiletries you don’t use,” “old mail” and “junk mail,” and finally “bobby pins.” Perhaps this lapsed too far into an obvious critique of materialistic consumerism, but the overall quickfire and allusive structure of the piece meant nothing circled around any one point too long. The refrain at the end, to the ‘song’ with “you thrill me… I have waited for this moment all of my life,” felt earned and was evocative after a majoritively strange and angular work. It might have been their debut performance as a quartet, but the wealth and depth of individual talent shone through. Hopefully we won’t have to wait “all of [our lives]” for another gig. Sublime stuff.
    
Meanwhile, Jazz in the Round continues in the new year, Monday 30th January, with an Edition Records special. Expect to hear Dinosaur, fronted by the award winning trumpeter Laura Jurd. Jasper Høiby is set to perform a rare solo set, and there’ll be improvisation from pianist Elliot Galvin and drummer Mark Sanders. Maybe see you there.

JAZZ IN THE ROUND: Organised Noise With Jazz FM's Jez Nelson.

“Every last Monday of the month we gather the finest musicians we can find and throw them together in a barrier busting night of contemporary music.

With Jez Nelson & Chris Phillips from Jazz FM.”

Written by Rob Harford
 

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